“What happened between 2015 and 2016?” asks Sam, the workshop leader, pointing at Polly’s resume.
Polly presses her lips together and looks down sadly. After a few seconds of silence, with all the eyes in the room on her, she exclaims, “I know this gap in my resume is a bad thing!”
“Not necessarily,” Sam responds. “But admittedly, it raises curiosity. For a job interview, be prepared for that very same question I just asked you.”
“That’s my problem. If I answer this question honestly, no one would hire me.”
Now all the Ph.D. students in the room lift their heads and raise their eyebrows. Polly stares down at the desk, clearly distressed.
“Let’s move to the next section in the resume, ‘Prizes and awards,’” Sam says, trying to ease the tension.
“Wait a sec,” Mark, another participant, bluntly interjects. “You’ve been in jail, Polly?”
She immediately raises her head, looking shocked. “Oh dear, no. Nothing like that! I started another Ph.D. in 2015,” she blurts out. “I quit after a year.”
“And you think this would be a reason not to hire you?” Sam asks.
Polly closes both eyes for a moment. “Yes.”
“Because you failed?”
“Yes, I did,” Polly says timidly.
“Is quitting a Ph.D. a failure?” Sam asks the whole group.
Some nod, while others shrug.
“Can I ask why you quit?” Sam asks, turning back toward Polly.
Polly sighs. “My supervisor was making me feel terrible. At every occasion, she was telling me that I was stupid and worthless. And on Fridays she would give all her students a long list of all the things we hadn’t accomplished that week to make us go to the lab on the weekend.”
“It sounds like you made a very good decision to leave that lab,” Sam says. “It shows me that you have a strong personality, that you stand up for yourself, that you are willing to pack your bag when a situation gets out of hand. It is a story of power, not of failure. Add it to your resume. It gives you color and character. Hiring managers will get curious.”
“OK … ,” Polly responds, clearly unconvinced.
“Leaving your first program was a decision that took a lot of courage,” Sam continues. “Many people might have advised you to stay in the group and finish your Ph.D. They might have told you that you would damage your resume with such a wobble.”
Polly nods in agreement.
“Such wobbles are only bad for your resume if they happen too often. Then it could suggest that you are the problem and that you can’t handle supervisors and hierarchies. But how is your relationship with your current supervisor?”
“He is great! Respectful. Supportive. Competent. A world of a difference.”
“Very good. A negative experience with a happy ending. If you are asked about it, you can say something like”:
I currently have a Ph.D. supervisor who is intellectually challenging me, and he gives me the space to develop as a professional. He gets a hard-working Ph.D. student in return. It’s a win-win. During my first Ph.D. the situation was different. I decided that continuing would benefit neither the supervisor nor me. It was a very difficult decision to quit, as people told me it would be a disaster for my resume. But, actually, I learned from that experience: Sometimes it is better to stop, take a step back, and start with a blank slate—rather than try to muddle through at all costs. Plus, I learned about good and bad leadership, which helped shape my own leadership style. Overall, quitting my first Ph.D. might have been the best decision I have ever made.
Polly nods and smiles. “Sounds good.”
“What about me?” Mark says. “My master’s took 3 years instead of one.”
“That raises curiosity too,” Sam agrees.
“What crime did you commit?” Polly asks, jokingly.
“I took care of my dad during the last 2 years of his life.”
“Add this extra responsibility to the master’s section of your resume, and in the interview say that there are some things which are simply more important than work,” Sam advises.
Polly adds: “You can only be proud of what you’ve done.”
And the moral of the story is:
Everybody has steps in their life that look wobbly, so you may be worried. Will employers want to hire you? If they ask you about a gap or an unfinished project during an interview, what can you say?
It turns out that these, let’s call them “character-forming events,” are really not as bad as you may think. They are often sources of growth rather than reflections of a lack of excellence. But you do need to handle them properly.
It’s a misconception that resumes, and careers in general, need to be perfect—i.e. smooth or, dare we say, boring. You don’t have to try to pretend that you always knew the best path for your own career. We learn through trial and error, and some of the most successful people we know tried a few different career paths before they found what fit them best.
If you had a “wobble” in your career, chances are that you had a very good reason for it. Own that experience and the lessons you learned from it. It probably made you a better person in some way. Besides, good managers want to see that you can own a mistake, learn from it, and move forward in a better direction than before. They won’t believe that you always do everything perfectly, so don’t try to pretend that you do.
Rather than worry what people will think and spiral down the path of justifications, embrace your resume with all its ups and downs, identify the value that your experiences have brought you, and tell the story of how you learned from the challenges and moved forward.
Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.